Erdogan is a religious teetotaller, which is fine, but he seems to be making his own choice a national policy, and resistance to this has been a significant element of the Gezi protests. I am particularly interested in the ways this personal moralistic crusade has been painted to the public, namely as an attempt to improve public health and to protect the Turkish youth from a tragic descent into alcoholism. The Prime Minister’s views on the subject are well known, and there have been many instances in the past few years where he has offered life coaching advice to the Turkish public, for example the catchy one-liner: “Eat grapes, don’t drink wine”. He recently declared that the national drink was no longer rakı (alcoholic) but ayran, a non-alcoholic drink made of yoghurt. Most seriously for nationalist Turks, he has insinuated that Atatürk was a drunkard (true or not, this was a massive faux pas).
For some, the latest alcohol restricting law of May 2013 has been the last straw. Among many other things, it dramatically limits the sale and advertisement of alcohol, dictates that bottles of alcohol must carry graphic health warnings, like cigarette packets, and all films or programmes on television must have images of alcoholic drinks blanked out (like on Iranian television), so actors look like they are drinking pixelated blurs. Egeman Bağış, the EU minister, defended the law to EU ministers on the grounds that some parts of it have been approved by the World Health Organisation, such as the ban on selling alcohol from 10PM to 6AM. Bağış pointed out that it is unfair to accuse the AKP of Islamic authoritarianism when countries like Sweden implement the same rules.
This would be a fair point, if it were not belied by more sinister elements of the law, for example the seemingly innocuous rule that no licenses will be given to shops or restaurants within 100m of either a school or mosque. In urban areas, everywhere is 100m from either a school or mosque. No new licenses will be given. And there is widespread concern among shops, bars and restaurant owners who already hold licenses that these will not be renewed when the time comes. For me, the censoring of alcohol on television is the most distasteful part of the law because it seems more like moral censorship than anything else. Alcohol has become a moral failing, something we must be protected from. Images of cigarettes are already blurred on Turkish television, and there is slightly more of a case for this as a purely health-related rule (though I still think it is unnecessary and ridiculous – try watching Casablanca and taking Humphrey Bogart seriously with a constant blur around his mouth). Alcohol is a risk when it is abused, but it is also an important part of Turkey’s heritage. Whether Erdogan likes it or not, rakı is Turkey’s national drink. Let it remain so and stop being so sanctimonious.
(N.B: the photograph above is not photoshopped)